For my money, the finest documentaries on baseball are HBO’s three volume set, When It Was A Game.
Composed entirely of never-before-seen 8 and 16 mm color home footage taken by fans, the players, and their families, we are treated to rare glimpses of players practicing and performing at spring training and at legendary ballparks, virtually all of which have fallen victim to the wrecking ball.
When I first watched When It Was a Game 3, the outstanding installment that covers the 1960s, I was thrilled to see a six-second video of Jackie Robinson at Briggs Stadium.
There he was, in living color, wearing his Dodger Blue with the green left field seats of Briggs Stadium and the 365-foot marker on the outfield wall in the background. (The accompanying images were taken by me of that scene as the documentary is now playing again on HBO on Demand. I have never seen a photo of Robinson at Briggs Stadium.)
The scene appears during a chapter on how the National League was more integrated and therefore more talented than the American League.
During the six-second sequence of Robinson, he is seen at Briggs Stadium taking a practice ground ball at second base, flipping it to shortstop Alvin Dark of the New York Giants, who then throws it to Brooklyn first baseman Gil Hodges.
As it’s shown, narrator Liev Schreiber says, “The pioneer of course was Jackie Robinson, whose distinctive flair and dramatic playing style would in time become a trademark of the National League.”
Schreiber does not mention where this action takes place, but it is obviously from the 1951 All-Star Game in Detroit, the only time Robinson played at Briggs Stadium. (Robinson also attended the 1968 World Series at Tiger Stadium as an honored guest of Major League Baseball.)
Four years earlier Robinson had broken the color barrier, but sadly it would be another seven years before a man of color wore the Old English D at Briggs Stadium, that being Dominican-born Ozzie Virgil in 1958. (The first African American who played for the Tigers was “over the hill” Larry Doby in 1959.)
For the record, the 1951 All-Star Game in Detroit was played on July 10th in front of 52,075 fans that included a 9-year old youngster named Bill Freehan who 20 years later, almost to the day, would be the starting catcher in the ’71 All-Star Game at Tiger Stadium.
Prior to Ty Cobb throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, a moment of silence was observed for legendary Tigers’ player and announcer Harry Heilmann who had passed away the day before from cancer.
The game was originally scheduled for Philadelphia, however Tiger owner Walter O. Briggs convinced his fellow owners to move the contest to Detroit because the city was celebrating the 250th anniversary of its founding. Ten years earlier the Summer Classic was first played at Briggs Stadium when Ted Williams hit a dramatic three run homer to win the game for the American League in the bottom of the 9th inning.
Batting clean up behind Stan Musial, Robinson walked once and batted 2-for-4 while displaying his famous speed with two infield singles including one on a bunt that scored Richie Ashburn. Robinson, who committed an error, also scored on a two-run homer by Hodges.
The game was won by the National League, 8-3 and featured an All-Star Game record six home runs that included a solo shot by Detroit third baseman George Kell. The record was tied 20 later in Detroit when six future Hall of Famers launched home runs at Tiger Stadium.
The next time I drive by, or better yet, walk again on that empty, famous diamond at Michigan and Trumbull, I will think again of seeing this very brief, but precious glimpse of Jackie Robinson playing on our own Field of Dreams.